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Pre-eclampsia explained

pre-eclampsia

What is pre-eclampsia?

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that develops when the placenta doesn’t develop normally during pregnancy. This leads to high blood pressure and protein in the urine in the early stages, and if it’s not treated it can impact on babies’ growth during the pregnancy and can be very dangerous for pregnant mothers.

 

Pre-eclampsia risk factors

Although the reasons why pre-eclampsia occurs are not fully understood, we do know that some women are at higher risk than others.

If you’ve had pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy then there’s about a 1 in 6 chance that you’ll develop it in subsequent pregnancies, and if you have an exiting medical condition, for example high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease, then you’re more likely to develop pre-eclampsia.

Some things raise the risk a little, and if you have two or more of these factors then you’ll also be more likely to develop pre-eclampsia:

  • This is your first pregnancy
  • You are aged 40 or over
  • Your last pregnancy was more than 10 years ago
  • You are very overweight
  • You have a family history of pre-eclampsia
  • You are carrying more than 1 baby.

 

If you are at higher risk of developing pre-eclampsia than other pregnant women, your doctor should advise you to take 75 mg of aspirin once a day from the time you are 12 weeks pregnant until you have your baby. This is to decrease the chance of you having pre-eclampsia.

 

Pre-eclampsia symptoms

High blood pressure and protein in the urine are important markers of when a pregnant lady develops pre-eclampsia, but you won’t usually be able to check these things yourself. Every time you see your midwife she’ll measure your blood pressure and check for protein in your urine, as these are the first signs of pre-eclampsia. Other symptoms can also occur, so if you develop any of the following be sure to get in touch with your health care provider immediately:

  • Severe headache
  • Problems with vision, such as blurring or flashing before the eyes
  • Severe pain just below the ribs
  • Vomiting
  • Sudden swelling of the face, hands or feet

 

Pre-eclampsia treatment

You’ll have to attend hospital for an assessment to determine the severity of the pre-eclampsia and to ensure your baby is safe. You may have blood tests taken and be sent for some extra ultrasound scans of you baby. You might need to take medication to lower your blood pressure. 

If your blood pressure can be brought down and your baby is growing well then you may be able to go home and continue with regular midwife checks until your baby is born.

If your pre-eclampsia is severe then you’ll need to stay in hospital. Your blood pressure will be treated, your baby will be monitored closely and you may also be given medication to prevent seizures. If pre-eclampsia progresses and causes fits or seizures in the mother then it is known as eclampsia and this may be fatal. It’s possible that if you have severe pre-eclampsia your baby may need to be born early. Your own doctor will discuss the reasons why this might be the safest option for you both and discuss whether a normal delivery or caesarean section would be recommended.

Although this condition can be very serious, the mild form of pre-eclampsia is far more common than severe pre-eclampsia and the treatment is usually effective at reducing the risk of harm to you and your baby. Its important to take medication as advised and attend all your antenatal appointments to monitor the wellbeing of you and your baby.

Article By

Dr Emma Scott (MBChB, MRCGP) is a qualified GP and mummy to two young children. She works in a GP practice in Edinburgh and in the out of hours GP service in Livingston and she has experience in both obstetrics & gynaecology and paediatrics.

to read more articles by Dr Emma

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